Updated: October 3, 2011, 3:49 PM ET
Gary A. Vasquez/US Presswire Pavel Datsyuk had 59 points last season even when he was limited to 56 games (hand injury).

Red Wings: 10 Things You Need To Know

By Pierre LeBrun

The Detroit Red Wings are trying to do it like no other team in the NHL.

They're rebuilding on the fly.

OK, rebuild is a strong word, but the Wings' roster continues to get a bit younger and change a few faces every year, and yet they aim to do just what they always do: contend for a title.

"We're trying to compete, we're trying to transition a little bit slowly from an older team to a younger team," Wings GM Ken Holland told ESPN.com.

Just don't confuse that with a team that can't still win.

"We've got the guy that won the Norris Trophy back for another year in Nick Lidstrom," Holland said. "We've got [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Pavel] Datsyuk who are two of the premier two-way forwards in the game. I think I'd like to think it's the nucleus of a team that can contend for a playoff spot. We'd like to think we can contend for a division title, and we hope and we'd like to think we can contend to play with the big guys in the West."

Lidstrom's return ensures the kind of stability the Wings need to continue to contend. But some critics wonder if they are beginning to slide.

"I got to be honest: I think we're a better team," top-six winger Dan Cleary told ESPN.com. "I really do. I think that our young players are getting better. Guys like [Darren] Helm and [Justin] Abdelkader will be huge factors for us. I think Jimmy Howard is going to be better. … I feel we're in pretty good shape."

1. Ramifications of Rafalski's retirement
Brian Rafalski's retirement leaves a sizeable hole on the blue line. He had 48 points (4-44) in 63 games last season. He played big minutes; helped key the transition game with a smooth, smart outlet pass; was a big power-play fixture; and he always played well with Lidstrom when partnered with him.

"We've obviously lost a big piece on the back end in Brian Rafalski," said Holland. "It's an opportunity for Niklas Kronwall; it's an opportunity for Jonathan Ericsson; it's an opportunity for Ian White."

Kronwall will likely eat up most of Rafalski's power-play minutes, while White, at least in camp and preseason, had the first audition to play with Lidstrom.

In no way does White, a UFA addition, come close to replacing Rafalski, but the hope is that between Kronwall taking another step in his All-Star career, and White playing within himself as a puck-moving blueliner, the Wings can overcome the loss.

2. Those veteran voices

Chris Osgood and Kris Draper retired along with Rafalski -- three key veterans who helped run the dressing room underneath Lidstrom for a long time. Mike Modano also left and retired after one season in Detroit.

Those departures open the door for younger players to take a step. And they need to for the Wings to keep on rolling.

"I'm looking at guys in their 20s, guys, like Ericsson, Helm, Abdelkader, Howard, [Valtteri] Filppula, [Drew] Miller and [Patrick] Eaves. We think some of them can take a jump in their career," said Holland. "Somebody will get an opportunity for a bigger role on our team. If some of these guys take a step, we have the potential to have a good year. If that doesn't happen, it's like all teams -- it's going to be a struggle."

3. Beware of cap room
The Wings entered the season with $5.8 million in cap room, ranking only 16th among the 30 NHL clubs in payroll. That's a major departure from the six previous seasons, where the club was stuck close to the cap ceiling.

"We have lots of cap space, a little bit by design, some of it by the decisions we chose to make to stay internally to fill holes," Holland said.

The Wings opted not to be too active this past summer in the free-agent market, where the options, in their opinion, weren't that much better than what they could find from within.

Because of that, the Wings can be more aggressive than they've ever been post-lockout when it comes to either the trade deadline this season or free agency next July 1. They'll have at least $10 million to $12 million to spend in free agency. If there are some big names available at the trade deadline or in free agency, the Wings will try to be in there.

4. Improved team defense a theme
The Wings were 23rd in goals against last season and 17th on the penalty kill, down from seventh and 10th, respectively, the season before.

Head coach Mike Babcock has been all over that this camp and preseason.

"That's probably been the most important focus at camp," said Cleary. "The important thing is that we've got the same players from when we ranked near the top. So it's not like we don't know how to play defense. Defense is hard work. We believe we got a hard-working team. Last year we kind of got away from that side of the game. We need to show that area up. We believe defense wins."

5. Cleary continues to increase role

Cleary has gone from training camp invite six years ago to key cog on the Wings. His career-high 26 goals last season were second only to Johan Franzen on the team.

Cleary once again enters this season with a chance at further increasing his role. "Yeah I've got that feeling," Cleary said. "My philosophy is that I've tried to go into every season trying to get a bigger role, more responsibility and just keep expanding on what I've been doing each year. I just want to put the effort in off the ice so that I'm ready to go on the ice. That's what I've been doing. Staying healthy is the key thing."

6. Lidstom's return cannot be overstated
The Wings, players, coaches and management alike, were on pins and needles waiting for Nicklas Lidstrom to decide whether or not he'd return.

Phew. A green light it was.

"We have fun one more year," star center Pavel Datsyuk told ESPN.com with a big grin on his face. "Maybe he'll play another after that. But that's a big thing for the Detroit Red Wings."

Added Cleary: "Every time Nick comes back it makes Detroit a legitimate contender."

Lidstrom captured his seventh career Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman last season. He's starting to slow down a bit at the age of 41 but remains a critical force on and off the ice. He ensures that the Red Wings' culture and work ethic that have prevailed since Steve Yzerman's captaincy remain intact in that dressing room.

"He continues to be one of the best defensemen in the game," said Holland. "He's 41 now, so is he the same guy as six years ago? Probably no. But he still continues to be one of the best defensemen in the game and he's our most valuable player and our most important player along with Zetterberg and Datsyuk."

The onus again this season will be to try not to wear him down.

"The plan is that most nights we want to play his minutes in the lower 20s, part of it is to keep him fresh but part of it is also because we need other players to come along," said Holland.

7. Howard survives sophomore season
Well, not without his ups and downs. Jimmy Howard struggled in midseason to the point where the Red Wings tried to bring in veteran Evgeni Nabokov as insurance. To Howard's credit, he rebounded with a strong finish and that makes the Wings feel confident he's the real deal.

"I thought he had a great start for us," said Holland. "I really write off those six-seven weeks in the middle of the season to our team not playing well defensively, our team having a lot of injuries and Jimmy being distracted by his contract negotiations. He's 27 years of age; he's played very well for us in both playoff years; he's a workhorse. We don't have any concerns about Jimmy Howard."

The Wings tried to bring in Tomas Vokoun in July, but he opted for Washington instead. Ty Conklin is back for a second tour of duty as backup. This is Howard's team, and if his playoffs last spring are any indication, the Wings should not have any concern in net.

8. Commodore gets to start over
Bought out by the Columbus Blue Jackets after finishing off the season in the AHL, Mike Commodore gets a new lease on life in Detroit.

The Red Wings have had success with second-chance players in the past, including the likes of Dan Cleary and Mikael Samuelsson. Now Commodore gets to start over. He'll add some grit to a Wings blue line where he'll fit in as a 5-6-7 player.

"I think the first year in Columbus he had a real good year. The team made the playoffs. Things went off the tracks ever since," said Holland. "He's looking for a fresh start.

"We were looking to add a little size to our lineup, a physical presence to our back end. We see him on the third pair; we think he can also kill some penalties.

"We're hoping he can get his game back to where it was a couple of years ago."

At one year, $1 million, he's well worth the risk for the Wings. Commodore was a very effective player for the Flames during their Cup final run in 2004. A motivated Commodore surrounded by better talent in Detroit should be a good thing.

9. Datsyuk the magician
During the NHL's player media tour in New York in early September, ESPN.com asked all the star players on hand if they had to pay to watch hockey, which star would they shell out coins for. The overwhelming response was Pavel Datsyuk, with Sidney Crosby second and Alex Ovechkin third.

"Wow, that's a big compliment, thank you," Datsyuk told ESPN.com.

After back-to-back 97-point seasons, Datsyuk dropped to 80 points in 2009-10 and 59 points last season when he was limited to 56 games. He's looking to up that tally this season, although the three-time Selke Trophy winner brings a lot more than offense.

"I would love to do individual things but it's not my style," said Datsyuk. "The team is more important. I wish I could score more goals. Maybe somebody can teach me."

Ah, that Datsyuk sense of humor.

All kidding aside, we foresee an 80-plus-point season for Datsyuk.

10. Staying on top never been harder
The task of staying on top of the division has never looked tougher for the Red Wings. Every team in their division feels it improved this offseason.

"I think the Central is going to be a great division this year," Cleary said. "The rivalry with Chicago is getting even better. St. Louis is young and talented. Nashville plays us so hard. They're like Red Army when they play us.

"Columbus added [Jeff] Carter. We've got a handful for sure in our division. But our goal every year is to win the Central so we get the highest possible seed. Nothing changes."

We see the Central title battle as a three-horse race between Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis, with Nashville not too far behind and Columbus challenging to make the playoffs. Going to be hard-earned points in the Central this season.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

More From The Magazine

ESPN The Magazine's preview provides even more in-depth coverage of the upcoming NHL season:

• Custance: Different season for the Caps?

• Chang: The Playoff Power Meter Insider

• Custance: The Crosby/concussion dilemma

• Photos: Hanging with champs in Boston

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